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North by Northwest: 50th Anniversary Edition DVD Review

North by Northwest movie poster North by Northwest

Theatrical Release: July 17, 1959 / Running Time: 136 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Alfred Hitchcock / Writer: Ernest Lehman

Cast: Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Phillip Vandamm), Jesse Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G. Carroll (The Professor), Josephine Hutchinson (Mrs. Townsend), Philip Ober (Lester Townsend), Martin Landau (Leonard), Adam Williams (Valerian), Robert Ellenstein (Licht), Philip Coolidge (Dr. Cross), Edward Binns (Captain Junket), Edward Platt (Victor Larrabee), Les Tremayne (Auctioneer), Patrick McVey (Sergeant Flamm), Ken Lynch (Charley)

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Alfred Hitchcock spent 50 of his 80 years on Earth directing feature films. Much was accomplished over the course of the nearly 60 movies he made. In life, Hitchcock was seen as someone who could craft a popular thriller. His only Academy Award was an Irving G. Thalberg Memorial in his career's waning days.
His only Best Picture winner, 1940's Rebecca, and his two other nominees far predated his most admired work.

Posthumously, Hitchcock's films have been met with numerous levels of appreciation. Not only have his suspenseful and substantive creations continued to be more viewed and enjoyed by the public than nearly any of their contemporaries, but critics and institutions have recognized his output for its tremendous artistic worth. Four Hitchcock films graced the American Film Institute's "100 Years... 100 Films" lists in both 1998 and 2007 incarnations. Nine of AFI's "100 Thrills" were Hitchcock movies, as were four of AFI's Top 10 Mysteries.

Many of Hitchcock's best known and most loved films came from a 10-year stretch in the latter part of his career. From 1954 to 1964, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds were released. Another four respected films came in that era, which also brought about both "Alfred Hitchock Presents" and "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" on television.

Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, a Madison Avenue advertising executive mistaken for spy George Kaplan and abducted. Eva Marie Saint is Eve Kendall, a woman whose look here casts some uncertainty upon her allegiance.

Released in the middle of that period, North by Northwest is a tale of mistaken identity. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant, playing his fourth and final Hitchcock lead) is a fast-paced New York City advertising executive. At a lunch with friends, Thornhill commits the error of raising his hand at precisely the wrong moment. He is abducted at gunpoint by two men, who, without answering a single one of his many questions, take him to a stately Long Island mansion. There, he is addressed as "George Kaplan" and quizzed by the house's apparent owner (James Mason). None of the vague accusations are met by anything but puzzlement from Thornhill. None of Thornhill's objections are given any notice.

Thornhill is forced to drink a large amount of bourbon and then placed behind the wheel of a moving car he's destined to drive off a high cliff to his death. But, he survives and is swiftly arrested for drunk driving. His honest explanation is deemed far-fetched by all who hear it. A visit to the site of his reported interrogation uncovers nothing suspicious and no one involved in it is around. Utterly perplexed, Thornhill begins to investigate the matter personally, assuming the identity of apparent target George Kaplan in an effort to figure out why men are trying to kill him and why the same men believe he's Kaplan.

Thornhill's discoveries raise further questions and when he arrives at the United Nations expecting to see his captor, he instead becomes the clear suspect in a diplomat's fatal stabbing. On the run from the law, Thornhill heads to Grand Central and catches a Chicago-bound train. On it, he finds an ally in Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a young woman who hides him from the authorities and engages him in stimulating conversation.

But Thornhill's mystery is far from solved, as the fugitive's whereabouts are pursued by the police, his relentless original abductors, and the U.S. intelligence agency behind this epic mix-up.

James Mason plays cool villain Phillip Vandamm, while a young Martin Landau is his associate Leonard. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) takes a break from binocularly looking at Mount Rushmore to ask The Professor (Leo G. Carroll) one of the many questions coming to mind.

North by Northwest certainly ranks with Psycho, Rear Window, and Vertigo as the four Hitchcock thrillers that are most recognized, viewed, discussed, and dissected. North contains two of cinema's best-known sequences in the biplane vs. man farmland chase and the climax atop the presidential faces of Mount Rushmore. It is impossible to be a fan of film and not be aware of at least one of these scenes, even if you haven't seen them in their original context.
Much has been written about the crop-dusting episode, which takes its time to unfold in an effectively unsettling fashion. The craft behind such an encounter is extraordinary and yet this isn't a movie which you're anticipating a particular apex moment, from which you'll have to come down.

No, this film is great on a fairly consistent basis. Upon acknowledging that, I must confess I didn't always feel that way. In fact, it was only for this article, on my third and most recent viewing, that I realized North deserves the abundant praise thrown its way. My first time seeing the film marked my first full Hitchcock experience. I was young and the film was screened in an academic setting, all of its achievements pointed out and celebrated in sporadic pausings. I was none too impressed. The movie strove to be comical and its sense of humor didn't align with mine. Factor in that the movie had to be watched over the course of at least three weeks and perhaps it's no surprise that the stunted suspense was no match for more pressing concerns in Latin, chemistry, geometry, American history, and the such.

Nonetheless, I came to discover and appreciate other Hitchcock films; the essentials and the less-known but still essentials. With better viewing conditions, almost all of them seemed superior to the one that had been chosen for a curriculum.

As Terry Gilliam's excellent Twelve Monkeys observed amidst its homage to Vertigo, "The movie never changes. It can't. But every time you see it, it's different, because you're always a different person." That rings true on my latest trip North by Northwest. Perhaps it's the change of pace offered to someone on a hearty viewing diet that skews heavily to 21st century films. Or simply the byproduct of maturing. But nearly everything about this film: the pacing, the visuals, the Bernard Herrmann score, yes, even the humor delighted me this time. Ernest Lehman, a man who wrote the screenplays for Sabrina, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music, tackles some terrifically fascinating ideas in what he hoped would be the definitive Hitchcock film. The one driving force in this story about Cold War espionage is an identifiable misidentified man. I'm still not taken with Grant and Saint's then-racy innuendo on the train. But Hitchcock packs more than enough on either side of it to thrill and amuse.

North by Northwest has only really been treated to one DVD, which Warner first released in August of 2000. That DVD has since been repackaged in a Limited Edition Collector's Set with stills and other goodies, in a plain keepcase, and in 2004's 10-disc Alfred Hitchock Signature Collection. Next week, the movie gets a genuine new release, in a 50th Anniversary Edition DVD and, for the first time ever, Blu-ray. We look at the DVD here.

Buy North by Northwest: 50th Anniversary Edition DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Mono 1.0 (French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in Japanese, Portuguese
Release Date: November 3, 2009
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s)
Suggested Retail Price: $24.82
Black Keepcase with Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on Blu-ray Disc with Book
Blockbuster Total Access - 2 Week Free Trial

VIDEO and AUDIO

North by Northwest looks amazing in this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The colors, sharpness, and detail are all impressive by any standard. For a 50-year-old film, they're unbelievable. I noticed some (probably inevitable) grain in one zoomed shot. Beyond that, there wasn't a thing that bothered or disappointed me.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also easy to enjoy. Herrmann's score features prominently and pleasingly. Dialogue is crisp and sounds natural. Only one short stretch is a bit quieter than the rest and when something like that is worth stating, then you know this is a quality mix.

Two bus riders -- one coming, one going -- wait on opposite sides of the street in the middle of nowhere. Screencap from 2000 DVD - click to view in full 720 x 480. Two bus riders -- one coming, one going -- wait on opposite sides of the street in the middle of nowhere. Screencap from 50th Anniversary Edition DVD - click to view in full 720 x 480.

Screencap from North by Northwest's 2000 DVD

Screencap from this 50th Anniversary Edition DVD

Although both DVD transfers look spectacular, they do so with sometimes
drastically different color timing, as evidenced in this same shot comparison.

Compared to North's original DVD, this one looks ever so slightly cleaner and sharper. Much more noticeably, it is darker. Nighttime scene portions that looked dark blue from the old release are indiscernible from black here. Everything, from skintones and fields assumes a more vibrant but darker hue. One assumes that the new tones are closer to what was intended, which would render this a slight improvement, although some may contest the changes. I struggled to find difference in the sound department, with the new release maybe sounding a touch clearer. In any event, bonus features are more of a reason to upgrade than the feature presentation, unless you're needing the higher resolution of Blu-ray.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Disc 1 carries over a pair of feature audio extras. First comes an audio commentary by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, recorded five years before his 2005 death. He starts this lucid track talking about everything we see: the mobile opening credits, filming locations, even narrating occasionally. Though it takes some time, Lehman eventually gets to what listeners will want to hear: insider information. He discusses his collaborations with Hitchcock, his personal research efforts for the script, obstacles in the film's creative process, Cary Grant's objections to delivering exposition, and the few things Lehman isn't crazy about in the film. The observations grow pretty sparse in the film's final 45 minutes and, well into his 80s, Lehman is a slow speaker throughout. Still, this is a pleasant enough track that we're lucky was recorded before the writer's death.

Next is an inclusion that has become quite rare on DVDs: an isolated score. Bernard Herrmann's music and only Bernard Herrmann's music is now heard in full 5.1. Obviously, watching the movie like this all the way through yields many a long silent stretch unless you feel like moving ahead and locating the next cue. Unfortunately, that requires more work than just skipping to the next chapter. But it's still a great feature and well worth enjoying as background music. More DVDs should have this option, which effectively highlights music entries and absences otherwise missed or unnoticed.

Cary Grant holds up a purple flower in the stretch of "Cary Grant: A Class Apart" that deals with his LSD usage. No, it's not Bring Your Grandpa to University Day. It's just a picture of 80-year-old Cary Grant with his fifth and final wife, 30-year-old Barbara Harris, shown in the feature-length TCM Grant biography. A Ray Milland-Grace Kelly scene from "Dial M for Murder" illustrates "The Master's Touch: Hitchock's Signature Style."

Disc 2 holds the visual extras, presented as six listings.

Co-narrated by Helen Mirren and Jeremy Northam, "Cary Grant: A Class Apart" (1:27:05) is a feature-length 2004 PBS/TCM documentary on North by Northwest's star. With interviews from colleagues, two ex-wives, and an assortment of admirers (authors, historians, critics) along with readings of excerpts from his autobiography,
this detailed profile spans Grant's life and career. It begins with his tough childhood and moves to his slow rise to Hollywood leading man, proceeding to sample nearly every major film he made.

It's not merely a celebration, for the piece turns critical in discussing the actor's period of complacency (in which he turned down films like Roman Holiday) and his financial-driven decisions. Besides discussing his cinematic hits and misses and the suave persona he could neither live up to nor shake, the documentary addresses the rumors of homosexuality that dogged him and housemate Randolph Scott, his marriage breakdowns and affairs, and his experimentation with then-legal LSD. It's an excellent and thorough biography that will reveal new things to all but the most devoted Cary Grant fans, who already own this on Warner's Bringing Up Baby: Two-Disc Special Edition.

"The Master's Touch: Hitchcock's Signature Style" (57:28) is a great primer on the director. It is composed chiefly of three elements: copious amounts of clips from Warner-owned Hitchcock films, new interviews with more than two dozen subjects (ranging from directors like Martin Scorsese and John Carpenter to Hitchcock biographers), and archived words from Hitchcock himself in an address on his philosophies.

It is very fun to look at the Hitchcock body of work here. Unfortunately but understandably, the documentary limits its focus to the 1940s and '50s titles in Warner's library, excluding Hitch's extensive work at Universal and his earlier credits. The upside is that commentators cite specific examples from movies that may be ignored in wider-reaching retrospectives. North by Northwest figures as prominently as any, but things like Stage Fright, I Confess, The Wrong Man and Strangers on a Train are also sampled and analyzed.

Among the important elements of Hitchcock cinema discussed: the point of view shots, the mischievous sense of humor, the MacGuffins, building viewer anticipation, cool blonde heroines, placing one in the shoes of villains and victims alike, and how Hitchock's Catholic faith and Jesuit education contributed to his interests in guilt, innocence, and antiestablishmentism. Such topics have been covered elsewhere, but they're thoughtfully reassessed here in this terrific, informative extra.

At age 75, Eva Marie Saint hosts the 2000 DVD's thankfully recycled "Making of 'North by Northwest'" featurette. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint don headdresses and pose with South Dakota locals in a still from "Destination Hitchcock." "Valkyrie" writer Christopher McQuarrie shares the screen with the "North by Northwest" title logo, one of cinema's first use of kinetic typography.

Next comes the one carried over featurette. "Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest" (39:24) is a standard turn-of-the-century making-of documentary. Hosted and narrated by Eva Marie Saint, it contains interviews with Hitchock's daughter Pat, actor Martin Landau, production designer Robert Boyle, and writer Ernest Lehman (who repeats many of his commentary factoids seemingly verbatim). The piece covers a great deal of ground, beginning with the film's conception, casting, and Hitchcock's cameo. It proceeds to share some good stories from filming and the set as the production went over its then-substantial $3 million budget. From filming tricks employed on the two most famous sequences to a Mount Rushmore controversy, from Hitchcock sneaking a shot at the UN to the much-documented shooting scene goof, just about every conceivable topic is satisfactorily addressed, even the director's paranoias and few clashes with Grant. It's a terrific companion to the film and the set's best film-specific extra.

"North by Northwest: One for the Ages" (25:29) finds five modern-ish filmmakers from "The Master's Touch" singing the film's praises, moving chronologically through most of the film's sequences. Speaking here are The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie and directors William Friedkin (The French Connection), Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), and Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend). It kind of plays like an abbreviated commentary recorded by fans/experts but tightly edited for maximum effect in under 30 minutes.

A Stills Gallery holds 44 pictures, ranging from vintage publicity and production stills to posters and ads to photos from surviving cast and crew's participation in the 2000 DVD's bonus features. If you don't like using chapter skip, this automatically advances every 8 seconds as a hands-free 6-minute slideshow.

The Alfred Hitchcock Travel Agency recommends a trip North by Northwest in this Guided Tour trailer. Like many 1950s trailers, this one for "North by Northwest" is big on the on-screen phrases. Though basically just a wider version of the DVD's iconic cover art, the main menu does place Hitchcock among Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.

Our final three items come under the header of Trailers & TV Spots. A black & white TV ad (1:00) and full trailer (2:10) are both as interesting as any piece of old movie marketing. Between them is the even better "A Guided Tour with Alfred Hitchcock" (3:15), in which the director pitches the movie, with his signature cheekiness, as a kind of vacation.

The 50th Anniversary Edition DVD drops just one extra from North by Northwest's original DVD: a Cast & Crew section which offered 3-4 screens of biographies and 4-5 screens of career credits for Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, and Alfred Hitchcock. I'm not sure why such sections, once commonplace on DVDs, have gone the way of the dodo. Sure the information and a whole lot more is just a few clicks and keystrokes away. But it's nice to have the information on the disc too, sans ads and distractions. Surely, these text extras can't require a whole lot of effort to make and it's not as if the bios and filmographies ever become terribly outdated on an old film like this. Still, it's safe to say the many pros of this new release outweigh this one con.

The DVD's static menus are much less exciting than those of the old disc, although it's amusing to see Hitchcock's profile among Mount Rushmore as was marketed long ago. The standard-sized keepcase comes with environmental cut-outs and a standard repetitive cardboard slipcover. The one insert is a booklet promoting Warner's Archive Collection DVDs.

Inside a crowded New York elevator, Mrs. Thornhill (Jesse Royce Landis) embarrasses her son by laughing off the idea that the two men to his left (Adam Williams, Robert Ellenstein) are trying to kill him. Although Eve (Eva Marie Saint) and Roger (Cary Grant) do hang onto Mount Rushmore rock near the end of the film, it's not a complete cliffhanger.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

You might not be crazy about North by Northwest on your first viewing, especially if it serves as your introduction to Hitchcock.
But I really warmed to it and I bet you will too if you're not instantly won over. I won't call it the director's best, but this taut comic thriller holds up to scrutiny and is full of things to admire. This is one less film whose widely-held classic status I feel a need to protest.

Warner's 50th Anniversary Edition supplies almost everything you could want, most notably terrific new bonus features and an outstanding feature presentation. Some viewers may prefer the original DVD's lighter, softer color palette, but I think most will be very pleased with this transfer. If you already own the film on DVD, then you might be more excited this time around by the premiere Blu-ray edition, which includes a 40-page hardcover book. Personally, I couldn't be happier with the DVD, an amazing 2-disc package that can be had at the modest price of a typical 5-year-old movie.

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The Cast of North by Northwest:
Cary Grant: An Affair to Remember (50th Anniversary Edition) | James Mason: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea The Verdict
Leo G. Carroll: The Parent Trap | Martin Landau: T.V. Sets: Action Packed ("Mission: Impossible") City of Ember

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Reviewed October 31, 2009.



Text copyright 2009 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1959 M-G-M and 2009 Warner Home Video. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.